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‘Hesburgh’ review: The priest who made Notre Dame more than a football team

Father Theodore Hesburgh

O'Malley Creadon Productions

David Ives - published on 05/04/19

Biopic about "Father Ted" recollects his civil rights work and lasting influence on Catholic higher education.

There was a time when most Catholics in the United States were familiar with the name of Father Theodore Hesburgh. For over three decades the good father was a ubiquitous presence in the public square, advising presidents and working side by side with leaders of the civil rights movement. During that same period, he also served as the head of the University of Notre Dame, a position that allowed him to exert great influence on Catholic thought in the country. However, time marches on, and Fr. Ted, as his students called him, has begun to slip from the collective memory like so many before him. With his new documentary, Hesburgh, filmmaker Patrick Creadon hopes to rectify that situation.

Utilizing a combination of archival recordings and narration based on Father Hesburgh’s personal writings (performed by prolific voice actor Maurice LaMarche), the film attempts to present a mostly first-person experience of its subject’s life. So it is through Hesburgh’s own recollections that we learn of his lifelong desire to enter the priesthood and his dogged pursuit of that goal. This would eventually bring Hesburgh to Notre Dame where, much to his own surprise, he was made president in 1952.

Upon assuming the office, Hesburgh quickly began work on changing the school’s image from that of a life-support mechanism for a football team to one of a bastion of academic excellence. It was a laudable goal, but one that would eventually lead the priest into much controversy. Such troubles would come later, though. At first, Hesburgh’s efforts met near universal acclaim, eventually bringing him to the attention of President Dwight Eisenhower. It was Ike who would usher Father Hesburgh into the public spotlight by appointing the priest to various government panels, most famously the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, which Hesburgh would serve on and eventually chair until his dismissal by President Richard Nixon in 1972.

It is these years where the documentary understandably concentrates most of its narrative. Hesburgh had an indefatigable devotion to the notion of civil rights, literally standing hand-in-hand with Martin Luther King, Jr. to demand that the nation’s policies reflect its ideals of equality for all. These efforts would often lead him into conflict with the very people he worked for. The documentary plays a somewhat amusing excerpt from one of Nixon’s infamous tapes in which the then-president discusses what should be done about the Hesburgh problem.

Had Father Hesburgh’s legacy consisted solely of his civil rights work, it’s quite possible he would be on his way to being pictured on a holy card rather than just the postage stamp he received in 2017. As the documentary takes note of, however, the good father’s tenure at Notre Dame was not without controversy. Though vocally opposed to the war in Vietnam, Hesburgh was quick to clamp down on protests occurring on campus, a move that baffled students who saw him as one of their own.

Of more importance were his actions regarding the nature of Notre Dame’s relationship with the Church. While fastidiously devoted to the office of the priesthood (he reportedly missed only one day of saying Mass in his lifetime) and a good friend of Pope Paul VI, Hesburgh held firmly to the belief that Catholic universities should be completely autonomous with no say-so whatsoever from popes or bishops. To this end, Hesburgh oversaw transferal of ownership of Notre Dame from the Congregation of Holy Cross priests to the University of Notre Dame Board of Trustees, a group that included a number of laypersons.

If the documentary has a glaring fault, it is that it glosses over the ramifications of these actions. We don’t really hear from any of Hesburgh’s critics, then or now, who no doubt view the priest’s decisions as the genesis of the wishy-washy secularism that today plagues the Catholic university system. It’s an unfortunate omission that would have given the film a more rounded feel.

Still, despite its leaning towards the hero worship end of the scale, the film accomplishes what it set out to do. Less than two hours is hardly enough time to cover the complexities of a figure like Father Hesburgh, but the documentary does enough to successfully illustrate what an important figure he was in American Catholicism and why he should be remembered, and for that it’s more than worth a watch.

Hesburgh opens in select theaters on May 3 and makes its way around the country in the weeks that follow.

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